Chea’s Place is the kind of place strangers don’t go into: a windowless wooden door flanked by grated windows in a blank low-rise facade that sits just past the point where White Center’s old-fashioned main street yields to a gap-toothed arterial strip. To the left sits a machine shop and, to the right, a sign announcing “Freshwater Pearls Sale” and the storefront offices of the Refugee Federation and the Khmer Community of Seattle/King County. Over the entrance, a plastic banner reads “Chea’s Place” in large script, and in smaller letters, “In Memory of Chea Keo.” Three illustrations give the only hint of the sort of place it is: a rack of billiard balls, a faint outline of the great Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat, and a jaunty rat, the unofficial mascot of White Center (aka “Rat City”), holding a cue and beer mug.
During the week, Chea’s Place and everything around it looks desolate. But by early Friday evening, cars and workmen’s vans are lined up in front, along 16th Avenue South, and five young Asian men huddle against the wind, shooting the breeze and catching a smoke before heading back inside. Pool halls are fixtures in Southeast Asian neighborhoods—along Jackson Street, in the Rainier Valley and the increasingly international suburbs of Southeast King County—and in White Center, where thousands of refugees settled after the Cambodian bloodbath of the late 1970s and the chaos that followed. There, three of those refugees have created Chea’s Place as a homespun shrine to the country they fled more than 20 years ago, and a refuge for others who, driven from one homeland as children, still struggle to find their place in a new one.
Usually these pool halls are sparse, drab places, especially now that home video gaming has supplanted the booth-sized arcade games that once shared space with the pool tables. Chea’s Place, by contrast, is an exuberant surprise. Its ceiling and wainscoting are painted the glossy cerulean of Mediterranean vistas in Italian-restaurant murals; its cantaloupeorange walls are hung with a visual potpourri that affords a crash course in Cambodian history and folklore. Imported paintings in mirror-image pairs show white tigers, Angkor Wat, the divine dancing maidens called apsaras. Around them, in simple glassed frames, hang French postcards of colonial Cambodge, black-and-white photos of Angkor’s magnificent statues before thieves broke off their heads, and snapshots from visits home by local Cambodians. An unsettling larger photo shows a child and war-wounded cripple on a Phnom Penh street. Two pool tables stand behind a low, unpainted plywood wall thrown up to satisfy some arcane state liquor rule.
On this ice-bound Saturday in December, the action at the tables is raucous, loud, and fast. The players, wearing the usual jeans, sweatpants, parkas, and hoodies, cheer and jeer like soccer fans, their Khmer seeded with English phrases. The rest of the room has been converted to something that looks less like a tavern than a clubhouse—a down-market version of the Rainier Club, a Starbucks-style third place with beer and karaoke. At a small table in back, three men—older than the others, and oblivious to their racket—hunch over a chessboard. Patrons lounge around the old couches, easy chairs, and coffee tables. The near-universal elixir, here as in Indochina, is Heineken, though a few patrons with Northwesternized tastes opt for Redhook. The price—$2.50 a bottle on weeknights, $3 on weekends—would be a bargain outside White Center, and no one asks for the check; patrons remember how many they’ve had and settle up when they leave. The pub’s grub is a melting pot on a plate: rice with traditional Cambodian fixings, frozen pizzas, tortilla chips. Though Christmas is hardly celebrated in Cambodia, one of the three partners in Chea’s Place—a bearded, bespectacled fellow named Many Uch (MAN-ee Ook), who looks more like a scholar sidekick in a Chinese costume drama than a pool-hall proprietor in South Seattle—commemorated it by fixing an enormous ham, free for the munching.
Often, patrons play cards on the big coffee table. On slow Sundays, they nap on the couches, but when the Seahawks play they pack in shoulder-to-shoulder: “They call me at nine on Sunday morning and say, ‘Come open up, there’s football,’ ” says Many, with a what-can-you-do shrug. “I say, c’mon, I was just there till one…but I do it.”